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When William Webster Root and five other medical students at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Chicago organized Alpha Omega Alpha in 1902, "excellence" was hardly the word that would describe American medical education.
Indeed, the founder viewed the society as a protest against "a condition which associated the name medical student with rowdyism, boorishness, immorality, and low educational ideals."
Of the approximately 25,000 medical students in the United States at the turn of the century, no more than 15 percent were college graduates. The only requirement in most schools was a high school diploma or its equivalent; the latter often meaning the ability to pay the fee. The schools themselves-there were about 150-were by and large of dubious quality. In his landmark study of medical education in the United States and Canada, published in 1910, Abraham Flexner found so-called medical schools located in storefronts, tenements, and warehouses, their laboratory equipment consisting of a couple of microscopes, some moldy slides, and a lonely skeleton. With a few exceptions, notably the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, founded in 1893, the medical school curriculum consisted of a series of lectures, sometimes supplemented by demonstrations at the bedside or in the laboratory, if such existed.
These, then, were the circumstances under which Root and his fellow medical students met to form a society that would foster honesty and formulate higher ideals of scholastic achievement. Chartered in 1903 by the state of Illinois, Alpha Omega Alpha's growth has paralleled the development of American medical education. Within a decade after the society was founded, chapters were established at seventeen medical schools. At present there are 124 active chapters in the United States and Canada.
Today, when students and established physicians alike reject easy platitudes, the tenets of the society are more relevant than ever. As framed by Root, they are a modern interpretation of the Hippocratic oath:
"It is the duty of members to foster the scientific and philosophical features of the medical profession, to look beyond self to the welfare of the profession and of the public, to cultivate social mindedness, as well as individualistic attitude toward responsibilities, to show respect for colleagues, especially for elders and teachers, to foster research and in all ways to ennoble the profession of medicine and advance it in public opinion. It is equally a duty to avoid that which is unworthy, including the commercial spirit and all practices injurious to the welfare of patients, the public, or the profession."